Lawmaker says Jindal, Legislature doesn’t prioritize higher education

People inside and outside Louisiana have the right to question whether the state has a commitment to higher education, state Rep. John Bel Edwards said Thursday.

Speaking to the LSU Faculty Senate, the gubernatorial hopeful said his colleagues, and Gov. Bobby Jindal in particular, would find a way to preserve funding to Louisiana’s colleges and universities if it was truly a priority.

Lawmakers have cut roughly $700 million from the state’s network of higher education institutions since 2008.

“Senior leadership doesn’t prioritize higher education,” said Edwards, of Amite and chairman of the House Democratic Caucus in the Louisiana Legislature. “Because we don’t cut what we prioritize.”

With the economy starting to turn around, Louisiana remains one of only a few states that has kept cutting higher education over the past two years, Edwards said.

LSU’s Pennington Biomedical Research Center is an example to warn that unstable funding will have far-reaching consequences, he said. Pennington is one of the largest academically based nutrition research centers in the world.

Edwards said he spoke with Pennington executives this week who told him that despite their world-class work on nutrition and obesity, they are having a hard time recruiting researchers — not because Pennington salaries aren’t competitive, but because the research center can’t match the retirement packages other institutions offer.

“We have to compete,” Edwards said. “We can’t be surprised LSU is falling behind its regional peers.”

Edwards also took aim at one of Jindal’s talking points.

The governor’s staff often points out that about half of the $700 million cut from colleges and universities has been made up in increased revenue as schools have continually raised tuition over the years.

Edwards said the trend in recent years has been for lawmakers to look at the dollar amount schools raise tuition, then take as much as double that same amount of state funding away from the schools — essentially making the tuition hikes moot.

Therefore, tuition increases should be considered tax increases, he argued.

Edwards explained his reasoning by saying that if tuition were a fee, schools would reap some benefit from raising prices.

A fee, he said, generates revenue for the agency that collects it. But that’s not the case in this state, he said.

“With all the tuition increases, how come we have not netted a single new dollar,” Edwards said. “That’s a tax increase on our students.”

Over the past several years, Louisiana’s higher education leaders have called on the Legislature to give them tuition-setting authority. Currently, it takes a two-thirds vote from the Legislature to raise tuition — the toughest threshold in the nation. Tuition hikes of 10 percent a year are allowed only if schools pass a number of performance standards such as improved graduation and retention rates spelled out in the 2010 state law known as the Grad Act.

Edwards told LSU faculty Thursday, that while he understands the plight of universities, he cannot support giving them authority to set their own tuition, because lawmakers will look at any increase and then strip schools of the same amount of funding or more.

“I just can’t support it ,if that’s the case,” Edwards said.